Permutations mean little when the reality is stagnation.
Insurmountable peaks among Stephen Kenny’s band of optimists were hit when charting a route for Ireland to top spot of their Uefa Nations group in the aftermath of Scotland’s win over Ukraine on Wednesday.
Perhaps it was in keeping with the manager’s own fanciful prophesising stretching back to last October when the notion of winning the pool and gaining the ancillary benefits was trumpeted as realistic.
That unpromoted declaration arose at the tail end of the manager’s best window, the wins over Azerbaijan and Qatar, and justifiably attracted headlines in the days that followed.
It also drew bewilderment in the FAI boardroom. Ambition is to be admired, once measured, yet this was another example of the association’s public figurehead inviting a hostage to fortune.
As Damien Delaney, among others, have noted, here is a manger learning on the job within a landscape he’s displayed scant evidence of adequately grasping.
Eleven defeats over a two-year reign that’s amassed 27 games should hammer home the point that international football is difficult.
Minnows Azerbaijan and Armenia have taken points off Ireland, the only nation to cede points to each in the last two campaigns.
Scoring goals is a task in itself, as is keeping them out, especially against fellow middling nations like the Scots.
Both of theirs on Saturday stemmed from crosses that weren’t properly defended, a staple of gaining results.
And that’s what counts at senior level. Just ask Jayson Molumby, one of Ireland’s better performers at Hampden Park. "You can learn lessons but it doesn't really matter if you don't get wins," says the West Bromwich Albion midfielder.
Scott Hogan echoed that stance in midweek when the source of his contentment, on and off the pitch, was sought. “Goals and results – simple as that,” he said by way of summary.
Given the goal form he carried into camp from Birmingham City, it would have been hard to imagine Hogan missing the second-half sitter that Troy Parrott squandered at 1-1.
Confidence and conviction eluded the 20-year-old as he bore down on goal, his hesitation and bluntness gifting Craig Gordon, sleep deprived following the birth of his child overnight, the time to stick out a leg and prevent the visitors retaking the lead.
“Troy had a bit of a period where he's not scoring at club level,” reasoned Kenny about Parrott’s goalless start to his latest loan at Preston North End.
“With strikers, goals sometimes come in clusters and he's obviously having a spell of not scoring but he still played well.”
Kenny seemed to suggest afterwards that the occasion Parrott did have the ball in the net, from a position that was clearly offside, was a “good” goal.
When queried, he admitted not seeing a replay, although that wasn’t the case for the penalty incident.
Footage watched led him to believe Alan Browne was impeded before handling, a version lacking substance and fuelling fatigue at the desperation for excuses in every window.
Clarke was accurate in contending the freshness Ireland enjoyed in the build-up influenced the early exchanges.
Once they absorbed Ireland’s verve, bar Parrott’s reprieve on the counterattack, Scotland were the better team.
John McGinn and Ryan Christie, both subdued in the first half, came alive while Scott McTominay’s midfield dominance was telling.
The flower of Scotland blooming, while the shamrock wiled, was like a thistle stinging the Irish at the booming Glasgow theatre.
Michael Obafemi’s withdrawal shouldn’t be underestimated either.
If Clarke and his players were glad to avoid Shane Duffy’s aerial prowess from the start, they became mightily relieved to see the speedster depart on the hour.
Just minutes earlier, the latest snippet of him terrifying the Tartan defence came in the form of his 60-yard burst and pass on a plate for Parrott.
Despite his limited minutes at Swansea City lately, surprise rightly accompanied his substitution.
“I felt Chiedozie Ogbene could have a really good impact,” sounded a fair explanation, were it not for the fact Parrott was the alternative to hook.
Repercussions are rife.
Gone is the promotion to League A floated by Kenny, a second seeding for the Euros draw on October 9 and a dent to the fallback consolation of entry into the playoff system for the 2024 tournament in Germany.
More pressingly and worrying for the bean counters at the FAI is the possibility of relegation to League C on Tuesday night.
An Armenia side hammered 5-0 by Ukraine’s second string in Yerevan on Saturday come to Lansdowne Road aware another victory over the Irish will dislodge them for third spot.
It’s a mirror image to the situation of two years ago against Bulgaria; a final Nations League match at home to the lowest seeds with nothing but the wooden spoon on the line.
Let’s see how many of the 44,000 fans Kenny have revealed bought tickets will turn out.
Progress doesn’t count in damage limitation mode.
Stagnancy is the best that can be hoped for from another campaign littered by words without actions.